Friends Might Start Letting Friends Drink Starbucks

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Coffee accounts for 80 percent of all Fair Trade certified products sold in the US, and with 40 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee purchases in 2009, Starbucks is by far the largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee on the planet. Starbucks’ commitment to Fair Trade is commendable, and in fact seems exceptional, in a world where the vast majority of companies engage in less-than-ethical business practices.  TransFair USA, the only third-party Fair Trade certifier in the US, calls the relationship between the non-profit and Starbucks “deeply transformational” to thousands of farmers and their communities.

In honor of Fair Trade Month, TransFair USA CEO, Paul Rice, and Starbucks senior vice president of Coffee & Tea, Dub Hay, met on Monday to discuss the virtues of Fair Trade and how the relationship between the non-profit and the world’s most well known coffee slinger has grown in recent years.  The discussion was broadcast live over the Internet,  with Rice and Hay fielding questions submitted via Twitter, Facebook, and live chat.

Fair Trade ensures that farmers around the world receive a reasonable price for their products, which in turn helps producers to invest in their communities, pay for their children’s education, and become better stewards of the land. Not only are coffee growers getting a better price, coffee drinkers are getting a better cup of coffee.  Unlike the Fair Trade swill the dedicated and ethical coffee drinker was forced to choke down ten years ago, today some of the highest quality coffees available are Fair Trade certified.

This is no coincidence; sourcing Fair Trade coffee forces buyers to develop deeper relationships with producers.  “I think the essence of Fair Trade is more than price, it’s about creating relationships and a new way of doing business,” observes Hay.  This new way of doing business includes providing technical advice, training, and extending credit to farmers (a major hurdle for small farmers).  Taken all together, these measures grant farmers access to information and capital to invest in on-site quality management and capacity building.  “If you are living in poverty, on the edge,” noted Rice, “you can’t afford to invest in quality.”

Overall, the conversation was congratulatory on both sides, and rightfully so.  Both Rice and Hay acknowledged how the relationship between the non-profit and the mega-corporation has grown from a rather contentious one in 2002 into a partnership that today is characterized by collaboration. TransFair and Starbucks are a part of a growing trend of partnerships between non-profits and for-profits, representing a significant departure from the past where the two institutions were sworn enemies.  We are entering an era where both businesses and non-profits recognize the mutually beneficial opportunities that exist in coming together to address social and environmental issues.

Of course, there is still a lot of work to do.  According to Hay, 100 percent of Starbucks espresso in the UK is Fair Trade, and by March of 2010 the rest of Europe and the Middle East will follow suit.  How much Fair Trade espresso does Starbucks serve stateside?  None.  According to Hay, there just isn’t sufficient demand from consumers in the US.  Both Rice and Hay mentioned Starbucks’ power and reach to bring Fair Trade products into communities that would otherwise not have access to them.  If Starbucks really wants to raise awareness, it should serve Fair Trade espresso in the US, even if consumers haven’t yet sent sufficient demand signals.  If the quality is there and the ethics are there, and the precedence has already been set in foreign markets, why not take a stronger stand and introduce Fair Trade espresso here?

Carly has a BA from Stanford and recently finished her MBA in sustainable management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her interests revolve around sustainable food production, sports, renewable energy, finance, and sustainable business consulting. She lives in Oakland where she spends her spare time cycling, home brewing, gardening, cooking, and surfing (when she can make it over the bridge).